Published September 20, 2013
SPARTA, Ky. – Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon like where they are in more ways than one.
The top two drivers in NASCAR's Nationwide Series are separated by only 17 points entering Saturday night's 300-mile race at Kentucky Speedway, where both have succeeded in recent visits. Dillon has the edge here of the two, sweeping last year and finishing sixth in June.
Hornish finished just three spots behind the 23-year-old to post his third top-10 in as many starts on the 1.5-mile oval.
That sets up several possible scenarios for the series' last stand-alone race this season. The drivers could flip positions, Hornish could distance himself from Dillon or things might remain tight — a dynamic that would shock neither driver considering how competitive they've been in what has been a rewarding year for both.
"It would really mean a lot to win this," said Hornish, the former open wheel champion and Indianapolis 500 winner who drives for Penske Racing. "I always knew in my heart that given the right opportunities, I felt like I could make it happen.
"There's a part of believing in yourself and then a whole other thing of making other people believe. I wanted the challenge of this, and it's provided all of that."
Dillon, who leads Regan Smith by 19 points and fourth-place Elliott Sadler by 27, is pushing toward the next milestone in his meteoric career. The grandson of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress — whose RCR Chevy Camaro sports the iconic No. 3 made famous by seven-time Sprint Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt — is trying to add a Nationwide championship to the Camping World Truck Series title he won two years ago at age 21, the youngest driver to do so.
Returning to the track that provided his last win a year ago could help Dillon's quest. He has led 275 laps in three Nationwide starts on the 1.5-mile oval, including 18 in June before settling for one of 16 top-10s this season.
"I feel like I can get that first win of the season, and that can be a momentum-booster," said Dillon, who also has nine top-fives. "Just running well here with the Trucks and knowing the bumps plays well into what I want to do."
Both drivers like their prospects this weekend even more with Cup series regulars competing in Loudon, N.H. instead of here. Dillon's Chevy (173.410 mph) was second-fastest to Matt Crafton's Chevy (173.740 mph) in Friday's lone practice with Hornish seventh (171.898) before rain cancelled the final session.
Qualifying is Saturday afternoon with a 7:30 p.m. start.
For Hornish, sitting atop the points with seven races remaining culminates nearly seven years of hard-earned stock car experience after winning the last of three IndyCar titles and the Indy 500 in 2006 with Penske. He lost a full-time Cup ride with the team but has gone back and forth between series, learning lessons about racing and himself that have paid off the past two years.
Fourth in points last season, Hornish has been fast and steady in the No. 12 Ford Mustang this season. He won in March at Las Vegas and has remained fourth or better in the standings with 20 top-10s and 12 top-five finishes.
Five top-three finishes and a sixth over the past seven starts have positioned Hornish to chase a championship that crew chief Greg Erwin saw the makings of early this season.
"Being in and out of Cup and Nationwide cars have given him experience in how these cars drive and he has adjusted," Erwin said. "He has also learned more about his surroundings and is more patient. At the beginning of the season we debriefed him after races and made adjustments, particularly on how not to duplicate some things he did before.
"One thing he certainly doesn't lack is bravery. He's not afraid to go fast, and is excelling at the high-speed tracks."
Dillon has hung close with solid efforts including fourth last week at Chicago and looks to find a comfortable running line that will help continue his mastery of Kentucky.
Last year's top Nationwide rookie is definitely enjoying the points race with Hornish, hoping to gain ground Saturday night but expecting competition to go down to the final race.
"He's obviously had a good year and their team has jelled well and made some good runs when it counted," Dillon said of Hornish. "It's fun to be in the race and great to see good competition and I think we're kind of separating ourselves.
"But there's seven races left and anybody can get back in this thing with a bad week. Hopefully, we're able to capitalize on the first mistake that's made in this points race that'll put us ahead."